French History/French Revolution

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French Revolution: 1789-1794

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The French Revolution was where the poor rose to the rich and thought everyone should be the same. They succeeded but not for very long.

The Enlightenment

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  • A loose intellectual movement during the 17th century.
  • Enlightenment thinkers include Locke, Voltaire and Montesquieu
  • The movement questioned the existing arrangements of society
  • Voltaire wanted to change the legal system. Voltaire believed that the church were only useful as a counterbalance against the power of the monarchy.
  • Montesquieu wanted a separation of powers between legislative, executive and judiciary to stop the leaders of France becoming too powerful.
  • Rousseau argued in the ‘Social Contract’ that legitimate government is based upon popular sovereignty. Rosseau's work was controversial as he stated that people were good by nature contradicting the biblical belief in original sin. His beliefs included not owning property and he is considered an important figure in the development of socialism and communism.
  • Adam Smith was an economist who wrote the ‘Wealth of Nations’ in 1776. He argued for free trade rather than France's then protectionist economic policies.
  • Enlightenment philosophers rejected hierarchical government and religious superstition
  • The most obvious example of the effect of the enlightenment on the course of the revolution is in the rights of Man -“All men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights…life, liberty and pursuit and happiness"
  • Rousseau's ideas impacted on Robespierre
  • The audience of such ideas was the educated classes.
  • During the time preceding the French Revolution there was also a more general spread of ideas because of the growth in journalism

The American War of Independence

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1776 – American colonists rose up against British forces after George III attempted to collect taxes without consent. French forces fought on the side of the Americans who wanted revenge for the Seven Years' War.

Its impacts were

  • To pay for the war they needed to borrow money. These loans had to be repaid but the crown was already paying back its previous loans. This got the crown into a spiral of debt.
  • Economically the war disputed trade between France and its colonies in the West Indies.

Politically the enlightened ideas of the American colonists began to spread. The Americans were fighting for “no taxation without representation” and popular sovereignty. These ideas impacted particularly Lafayette.

Social Structure before the revolution

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Before the revolution France could be described as having a feudal society

  • First Estate – Clergy
  • Second Estate – Nobility
  • Third Estate – Everybody else ranging from the bourgeoisie, urban workers and peasantry.

First Estate

  • Had their own courts
  • Had an assembly to control their affairs
  • Exemption from all direct taxes and some indirect taxes
  • They collected the tithe
  • The church controlled education
  • Owned 10% of the land in France – it gained considerable income by charging rent on this land
  • Because of their position supported the King by Granting a ‘don gratuit’ through its assembly, this was a sum of money raised by the church paid for by the lower clergy

Second Estate

  • The second Estate were not necessarily distinguished by their wealth but by their privileges.
  • Legally they were exempt from some of the harshest punishments
  • They did not have to pay the taille – the main direct tax
  • They were exempt from force labour on the roads. (The corvee royale)
  • They had the right to bear a sword and were given officer status in the army
  • They owned 10% of the land and enjoyed rights of the manor
  • The second estate could be distinguished by whether they were nobility of the sword or nobility of the robe. Those that had inherited noble status and those had had purchased the status in the law courts

Third Estate

  • The third estate did not enjoy the privileges of the first and second estates.
  • The third estate were not simply peasants – the relatively rich bourgeoisie were part of the third estate.
  • The third estate had a very high tax burden which included:
  • The taille (direct tax)
  • The tithe (church tax)
  • The gabelle (salt tax)
  • Vingtieme (emergency tax for war)
  • Capitation (poll tax)
  • Labour on the roads (corvee royale)
  • Labour on the lord's land (corvee)

The Political System before the revolution

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Louis XVI was an absolute monarch so in theory his power was unlimited. This power was god given and therefore he was answerable only to god.

The king appointed 34 intendants who were responsible for the running of a particular region of France.

The King had the power to imprison anyone through use of a ‘letter de cachet’.

France had 13 parlements, which were law courts. They were the final courts of appeal and were responsible for registering royal edicts.

The parliaments, of which Paris was the most important, could refuse to register a royal edict but it was possible for the king to pass a measure through a lit de justice. Normally the registering was a formality.

French economy before 1789

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France was still predominantly an agricultural economy. This meant that when agriculture flourished industry flourished but the reliance on agriculture meant that bread prices could rocket during a bad winter.

High prices ► demand decreases ► unemployment increases

During the 18th century trade generally prospered. Trade was controlled by guilds, which could limit the amount of trade and regulate standards of the goods being sold.

France's industry blossomed because of trade with its colonies in the West Indies.

The economic and social causes of the French revolution

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  • The bourgeoisie were expanding during the 18th century and the more wealthy wanted noble status. However the number of bourgeoisie entering the ranks of the nobility remained small. It is therefore arguable that support for enlightened ideas such as meritocracy found support in the bourgeoisie.
  • The Bourgeoisie members of the third estate supported a constitutional limitation on the power of the crown and a share of political power.


  • The rural population rose increasing rents on the land. Increasing amount of labour helped to depress wages. There were also fluctuations in demand for the wine industry.
  • The peasantry had to deal with this as well as the effects of bad harvest and the large tax burden.
  • Prices on food reached their peak during the soudure (after the exhaustion of the last harvest but before the new harvest).
  • As hunger became a problem there were attacks on grain harvests and those suspected of hording grain
  • The resistance of the nobility to join the third estate is who sparked the fear that there was an aristocratic plot to destroy the harvest.
  • After the storming of the Bastille the ‘Great Fear broke out in the countryside.
  • On the fourth of August noble privileges and venal offices were swept away.

The towns

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  • The increase in bread prices meant that people had less to spend on manufactured goods so there were wage and job cuts.
  • Other towns set up their own citizens' militia – the revolution was not just a Parisian affair.
  • The artisans of Paris were hit hard by the economic difficulties. Although riots such as the Reveillon Riot were economic in nature they did have a political element.
  • The hunger, political stalemate and Versailles, royal forces around Paris and calls from demagogues led to the storming of the Bastille

The role of the monarchy in its own downfall

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Louis XVI lacked the personal qualities for the role of King. He was awkward in public; he preferred his hobbies to government. He was also rumoured to be impotent because of the long-awaited arrival of his son causing scandalous speculation as to who the father was.

Marie-Antoinette was also unpopular. She was Austrian and given the nickname L’Ausrichienne (Austrian bitch) and Madame Deficit because of her extravagant spending. The diamond necklace affair – where she was accused of contracting venereal diseases from the cardinal de rohan although untrue damaged her reputation and undermined the monarchy.

Louis leadership was often indecisive – he changed controller general numerous times. He also showed no leadership on the issue of voting by head .

1774-1789: Attempts at economic reform

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During this period France was defeated during the Seven Years' War.


  • Damaged royal prestige
  • Cost a lot of money and got the monarchy into a lot of debt
  • Made the crown want to reverse its humiliation and increase expenditure on the armed forces

The debt and need to spend more on the army made meant that a reform of the tax system was needed. However the parlements resisted changes as they were attempted in times of economic hardship. The parlements had a vested interest – they of course didn't and to lose their privileges!

Louis the XV tried to trim the parlements' powers. In 1770 edicts were issued which prolonged wartime expenditure. When the parlements were refused they were exiled.

The controller general Terray tried to reduce the number of venal offices and renegotiate the terms of the farmer's general – the people who collected royal taxes. These reforms were needed but were deeply unpopular ans so were not carried out.

When Louis XVI ascended the throne he bowed to popular pressure and brought back the parlement. But of course the financial crisis remained.

In 1776 The controlleur general Turgot created a reform package that included:

  • Abolition of guilds
  • Pressure on the Farmers-General who took some of the tax money
  • Stricter account procedures so it was known where all the money was going

The reforms were opposed by rival ministers and the Paris parlement so Louis replaced Turgot with Jacques Necker.

Necker raised money through loans, stricter accounting procedures and cutting the number of venal offices. In 1781 the Compte Rendu was published the first royal accounts – it showed a surplus of revenue but this was engineered – he “cooked the books”.

Necker was sacked partly because he was a Protestant, partly because the compte rendu was seen as damaging royal prestige and partly because his attempts to control war expenditure were unpopular with other ministers.

When Calonne became controller general he had to deal with the increasing repayments on the loans which Necker had secured. To maintain the flow of money from creditors new royal palaces were purchased – to give the impression that French finances were fine.

The Paris parlement refused to register new loans. Calonne saw how bad French finances were and blamed the Compte Rendu for painting a false picture of French finances. He wanted the Second Estate to lose its privileges and called the ‘Assembly of Notables’, a group of nobles who he hoped would endorse the reform package.

When the Assembly of Notables gathered in 1787 it refused to agree to the reforms – again there was a vested interest – why would they agree to lose their privileges? The nobles believed the account given by Necker's Compte Rendu and some argued that such an assembly could not decide such fundamental reforms.

Callone was attacked over his reforms and Louis replaced him with Brienne. The Assembly of Notables dissolved saying that only the Estate-General could agree such fundamental changes.

There were bad harvests in 1786 and an economic crisis stimulated by the Eden Treaty. These were damaging as they reduced the amount of tax which could be collected. Brienne watered-down Calonne's proposals as France were facing bankruptcy.

Again the Paris parlement refused to register the edicts saying that only the Estates-General could agree such measures. There were Parisian demonstrations in June 1787 in favour of the parelment's position.

This made Louis exile the parlement in August 1787. The financial situation became dire and Louis was forced to recall the parlement – he said he would call the Estates-General in five years time.

Louis passed the reforms by a lit de justice, those that questioned this were imprisoned without trial.

This caused the parlement to question whether the king was able to imprison without a trial. Meanwhile, there were riots in Renne and Grenobles (‘Day of the Tiles’) in support of the parlement. The church also sided with the parlements voting only a small ‘don gratuit’. These events can be summarised as a revolt of the nobles.

This pressure forced the King to call the Estates-General and recall Necker. Necker made it clear he would do little until the Estates-General was called. As the Paris Parlement was recalled it considered the make up of the Estates-General. It last met in 1614 where the three estates voted separately and voted collectively – this allowed the first and second estate to outvote the third estate.

The Paris parlement wanted the Estates-General to take the form of 1614 – this made their earlier defence of the nations freedom seem hollow.

Some bourgeoisie leaders argued for doubling the representation of the third estate or voting by head – these would both allow the third estate to influence policy.

The King could have sided to side with the third estate but he hesitated. An Assembly of Notables rejected the idea of greater representation of the third estate.

It was eventually decided to double the third estate's representation but no reforms were made to voting. As each village and town wrote its cahier de doleance for the Estates-General debate continued to rage.

The harvest of 1788 had been poor, food prices increased rapidly, hailstorms had damaged the crops! This prompted the Reveillon Riots where was rioting over wage decreases.

The failure of economic reform

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France was involved in 3 major wars during the middle of the eighteenth century. These were

1. The war of Austrian Succession. 2. American War of Independence. 3. Seven Years' War – Britain vs France fought in the British and French colonies of N. America and India. A financial and economic disaster for France.

These were funded by borrowing loans, or taxation (vingtieme)

Ordinary expenditure was also high the palaces at Versailles needed to maintain and other members of the royal family had extravagant palaces built.

There was a lack of uniformity in the tax system and as some taxes were collected by the farmers general which were corrupt. Where were no accounting procedures to measure expenditure

Failure of the controlleur generaux

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  • Reform was attempted at times of hardship
  • Rival ministers challenged reform – Brienne challenged Calonne's proposals and afterwards got his job!
  • The parlements opposed reform. There was a long running power struggle between the monarchy and the parlements.
  • The nature of the reforms (removing royal privileges) meant that such people with vested interests were not going to agree to lose their own privileges.

Reform was difficult as a flow of cash needed to be maintained. To maintain the flow of cash loans were taken out but eventually they needed to be paid back.

Cahier de doleance

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As part of the calling of the Estates-General each town drew up a cahier de doleance (a list of grievances). Grievances included;

  • The hated gabelle - a tax on salt
  • Burden of seigniorial rights
  • The tithe
  • The corvee royale (labour on the roads)
  • The supply of grain trade – hampered by guilds
  • Destruction caused by pigeons

The third estate and second estate cahier demanded :

  • The abolition of letters de cachet
  • Estates-General control of taxation
  • Establishment of a constitution
  • Freedom of the press
  • Abolition of Tax privileges


The third estate wanted to end seigniorial rights greater economic freedom

The Estates-General – The Third Estate refuses to meet

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When the three estates began to meet at Versailles the Third Estate refused to register separately until the issue of voting had been resolved, they wanted voting by head.

In June the Third Estate invited the other two estates to join them. No members of the Second Estate did so but a trickle of Clergy began to join.

On the 17th June 1789 It declared itself the National Assembly. On 20 June the third estate was barred from its meeting place by royal troops.

The third estate met in a tennis court where they took an oath not to disband until a new constitution for France had been agreed – This is the tennis court oath.

A Royal Session was organised to offer concessions but ordered the three estates to discuss separately and he wanted the nobility to have a veto over the Estates-General.

Some nobles began to join the National Assembly causing Louis to admit defeat, he ordered the other nobles to join the National Assembly.

The Storming of The Bastille

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The King began to gather troops around Paris – it looked to the third estate like an attempted coup. When Necker was dismissed and replaced by the conservative Breteil and as food prices increased unrest simmered.

As grain stores were looted the National Assembly formed a national guard to restore order. Marquis de Launey had his head cut off and it was paraded through the streets, seven prisoners were released from the prison.

Paris was under control of the National Assembly as royal troops had refused to fight.

Louis was forced to remove troops from around Paris. He reinstated Necker and accepted the revolution by wearing the revolutionary tricolour cockade.

The Great Fear

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The revolution in France was relatively bloodless as royal authority collapsed. However law and order broke down in an event known as the Great Fear.

Peasants believed that their feudal obligations were to be abolished. There were also rumours of an aristocratic plot to reverse the revolution and destroy the grain harvest.

The peasants armed themselves and destroyed châteaux containing the terriers (legal documents) that showed the lord's rights over the peasantry.

This caused the National Assembly to act by abolishing privileges on the ‘Night of the 4th August’. The Assembly then drew up how France would be governed in the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’.

August Decrees, Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the October Days

The National Assembly passed during August

  • The August Decrees
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

The ‘Great Fear’ caused the assembly to abolish feudalism, venal offices, guild privileges and peasant dues to their lords were also given up. However landlords would be compensation for the loss of their dues.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen set the principles by which France was to be governed. It was based upon Jefferson's Declaration of Independence which itself was based upon the Bill of Rights.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen 1. Men are born free and remain free equal in their rights 2. The purpose of the government is the maintenance of these rights; especially liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression. 3. All government power comes from the people. 4. Liberty means being able to do anything, which does not harm anybody else. 5. The law is there to protect the liberty of all citizens. Laws are framed to reflect the will of the people and are made by an elected assembly. 6. Everybody is equal before the law. 7. Careers and positions of authority should be held by talented men, not those who use family background or money to secure them. 8. No man can be accused, arrested or detained except in cases determined by the law. 9. Punishments must fit the crime. 10. There should be freedom of speech, the press and of conscience. Everyone has the right to their own opinion especially in matters of religion unless it causes public order issues. 11. Taxation necessary to maintain government should be shared equally all in accordance with their income. 12. Taxation should be agreed by an elected assembly. 13. Public servants should be accountable for their actions. 14. The right of property belongs to all.

The storming of the Bastille was important in terms of the development of the revolution, as the bastille fortress represented Louis XVIs absolute power - when it was stormed it meant the collapse of the ancien regime.

The October Days

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There was debate in the National Assembly as to how much power the King should now have. Should the king be able to veto policy? A group known as, monarchiens wanted the king be able to prevent policy. A larger group did not want the king to be able to veto policy, it had been feared that the King would have crushed the Great Fear if he had been given the power.

It was decided that the King would have a suspensive veto – he could prevent legislation for up to 4 years. There was to be a separation of powers:

  • Executive – King
  • Legislative – National Assembly
  • Judiciary – Independent

The King voiced criticism and refused to sign the legislation. This help to cause another journee. A drought had stopped watermills from working and unemployment in the luxury trades caused unrest to simmer. Soldiers trampled the revolutionary tricolour cockade.

This caused the ‘March of the Women’, women followed by 20,000 National Guard led by Lafayette to demand the Rights of Man and bread.

The crowd stormed Versailles; The King was forced to accept the August Decrees and the Rights of Man. Louis would not embrace the spirit of the revolution but food prices began to stabilise and the economy recovered. The king was losing control as his intendants (royal officials) fled.

Flight to Varennes

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On June 20, 1791 Louis and the rest of the royal family attempted to flee Paris. They either wanted to reach Montmedy and use this stronger military position to renegotiate the constitution or use the troops to invade France.

Louis was captured and brought back to Paris to a silent crowd.

The system of constitutional monarchy now looked unworkable and the Constituent Assembly voted to suspend the king's powers temporarily.

It was probably the enforced oath of the clergy that made Louis wish to escape, but the decision to leave was taken with a longer-term dissatisfaction. He was dissatisfied with his lack of control over the new constitution and the increasingly radical ideas emerging from the radical Jacobin club.

The royal party were arrested when they reached Varennes – 30 miles from the Austrian border. After the Flight to Varennes the idea that France could become a republic gathered support for the first time.

Champs de Mars Massacre

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In July 1791 after the Flight to Varennes the radical and popular Cordelier's club supported a petition stating that the King should be removed from power. The 50,000 strong crowd became violent when two suspected government spies were lynched.

Lafayette used the violence to disperse the crowds and attempted to round up radical leaders. However Danton, Herbert and Marat went into hiding.

This event also caused the Jacobin Club to split. Robespierre wanted the king to be removed but a new group called the feulliants did not.

Membership of the Jacobin club soared and there were fears of a possible Austrian invasion after the Declaration of Pilnitz where Austria and Prussia had made their hostility to France clear. Leopold II of Austria seemed to threaten intervention on behalf of the crown.

The Legislative Assembly

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Only active citizens could vote for the new Legislative Assembly. The Self-Denying Ordinance prevented members of the old assembly from standing in the new assembly. This was engineered by Robespierre who didn't want his opponents dominating the new assembly.

The two issues which the new assembly needed to deal with were

  • Refactory Priests – Those that did not agree to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy
  • Émigrés – aristocrats that had emigrated from France. 4000 Army officers left France after Varennes. It was agreed that Émigrés would lose their property is they did not return

An important member of the Legislative assembly was Brissot. He wanted a republic after Varennes.

Brissot and War

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The King refused to sanction decrees against refractory priests and émigrés. This made the king appear uncommitted the revolution. Brissot argued that a war was needed against émigrés and their foreign protectors. War would arouse support for the revolution and expose counter-revolutionary elements. It would liberty to foreign countries an as Britain and Russia would not enter the war it seemed promising that they would win.

Marie Antoinette persuaded Louis for the case for war – a French loss would mean the restoration of the monarchy to its former powers. This looked possible because of the number of émigrés who had left the army after the exodus of officers.

Lafayette supported war believing that it would enhance his position and that it would prevent extremists both royalist and republican from gaining power.

Robespierre opposed war believing that only ambitious generals like Lafayette would benefit – his patriotism was questioned as he was a minority, everyone else fully supported war.

The war was not as Brissot had predicted and the French army was not fit to fight. One general, General Dillon, was even murdered by his own troops.

The shambles were blamed upon:

  • Refractory priests – uncommitted to the revolution
  • Austrian Committee

The Legislative Assembly passed decrees allowing refractory priests to be deported and the disbandment of the King's guard. The legislative assembly created a National Guard, the federes, to defend Paris.

Frances economic problems of inflation and unemployment began to creep back.

A journey occurred when Lafayette called for the banning of political clubs. This was taken to presage a military coup and crowds invaded the Tuileries palace and forced the king to don the bonnet rouge.

On 11 July, the Legislative Assembly passed ‘La Patrie en Danger’ meaning that decrees no longer needed the King's sanction.

The federes had arrived in Paris, petitions demanding the overthrow of the King arrived at the Legislative Assembly.

The Prussian army advanced into France and the duke of Brunswick delivered the Brunswick Manifesto. The legislative assembly was reluctant to declare an assembly.

A journey occurred on 10 August as sans-culottes overthrew the municipal authority of Paris. The federes attacked the Tuileries killing the Swiss guard. Overawed the assembly declared the king's overthrow. It also declared that there should be new elections for a new assembly – The National Convention

Constitutional Monarchy had failed because

  • Attitude of the monarchy
  • Break down in the revolutionary consensus
  • Religious issue
  • Émigré threat
  • War
  • Economic crisis
  • Too many people didn't like them.

A reign of terror develops: The ‘September Massacres’

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Many members of the Legislative Assembly who had supported the idea of constitutional monarchy subsequently went into hiding.

Under pressure from the san-culottes the Legislative Assembly voted to deport refractory priests and to win over the peasantry feudal dues were abolished. Émigrés had their land confiscated

The advance of Prussian forces deepened the political crisis. The Legislative Assembly gave powers to local authorities to arrest ‘suspects’. In Paris, the prisons soon became full of priests, nuns and monks.

The Marquis de Lafayette had emigrated as it looked as if Paris was to be invaded. This caused Danton to appeal for people to fight.

Fear of counter-revolution grew when people went to fight. Marat called or conspirators to be killed, san-culottes began visiting prisons and ‘tried’ the inmates there. Over 10,000 people were executed.

Jacobins even tried to have Girondins executed because of their attempts to work with the King. The September Massacres caused hostility between the Girondin and the Jacobins. Foreigners regarded the killings as shocking and the san-culottes and Jacobins became known as ‘buveurs de sang’

The Elections for the National Convention

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When elections were held for the National Convention Paris chose to elect Jacobins while outside of Paris 200 Girondins were elected. The uncommitted members became known as the plain as they sat in the middle of the Jacobins on the left (later known as the Montagnards). The National Convention soon declared a republic. However, there was soon friction between the Girondin and Montagnard. There differences were that the sans-culottes supported the Montagnards and the Montagnards were prepared to be more extreme and militant.

The Montagnards saw the Girondin as too close to the king because of their attempts to do a deal with the king while the Girondin associated the Montagnards with the ‘September Massacres. As the Girondin gained their support from outside Paris they supported a more federal system of government while the Montagnard with their support base in Paris were in favour of central government.

The Girondin initially dominated the assembly because the war began to go well. Prussian forces were pushed out of the country. The Edict of Fraternity was passed which offered aid to all people wishing to secure their liberty. Another Area where the Montagnards and the Girondin clashed was on what should be done with the king. The Montagnards wanted the king to be tried for treason while the Girondin argued against this.

Popular opinion wanted the king to be executed but the Girondin argued against this. This reinforced Montagnard and sans-culotte suspicion of the Girondin. The Girondin began to call the Montagnards ‘Septembiseurs’ – those that carried out the September Massacres.

The vote found the king guilty and he was executed on 21 January 1793.

France was at war with Holland, Switzerland and in northern Italy. Britain feared that France could occupy the whole of the channel coast. The Convention declared war on Holland and Britain in February 1793 and then Spain in March 1793.

France's fortunes turned now that it was at war with a large collection of states – General Demouriez emigrated after a defeat by the Austrian army. He wanted to march on Paris with his army but they refused to.

Revolt in the Vendee

The Vendee is a Catholic area in Western France. The Peasants there were paying more tax than under the ancien regime and had not benefited from the sale of church lands. The National Convention used 30,000 troops to crush their rebellion.

The Enrages (Angry or mad ones)

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The enrages were a group led by Roux and Varlet. They wanted

  • Price controls on grain
  • The Assignat as the only legal tender
  • Repression of counter-revolutionary activity

They were supported by the sans-culottes but their numbers were never that large.

There were increasing economic problems as the Assignat dropped in value as more were printed. Farmers became unwilling to sell their grain for what was increasingly becoming worthless money.

In an effort to control the crisis the Montagnard set up the revolutionary tribunal to try those of suspected counter-revolution. It was an attempt to prevent another September Massacres. It sent deputies from the convention which were known as representatives-on-mission whose job it was to oversee conscription. Watch committees (comite de surveillance) were set up to keep an eye on foreigners and execute any émigrés, which returned to France.

In April the Committee of Public Safety was set up to deal with the radical movement of the Enrages, riots caused by food shortages and revolt in the Vendee. The C.P.S. could coordinate the war effort and supervise the activities.

In order to appease the san-culottes the Convention imposed price controls known as the maximum. This was opposed by the Girondin. Hostility towards the Girondin increased as they attacked the sans-culottes and even tried the popular hero Marat.

This caused Robespierre to side with the sans-culotte and demand the overthrow of Girondin deputies. 80,000 National Guard surrounded the convention. 29 Girondin deputies were expelled the Convention became dominated by Jacobins and the Plain

The Development of the Terror. – The Anarchic Terror

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Between June and September Committee for Public Safety was reorganised. The job of the CPS was to maintain supplies to the army and civilian population. It sister group the CGS (Committee for General Security) was responsible for the pursuit of counter revolutionaries. There was no clear distinction between the jobs of the CPS and CGS.

Other important groups were

  • Watch committees
  • Representatives-on-mission
  • Revolutionary armies

This period is referred to by some historians as the ‘anarchic Terror’

Federal Revolt

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The purge of Girondins caused revolt in the provinces, which is where support for the Girondin was greatest. Anti-Jacobin movements broke out in eight departments. This unrest can be distinguished from the revolt in the Vendee, as this was counter-revolutionary. The federal revolt however was anti-Jacobin.

This led some to collude with the British in Toulon (Britain was occupying Toulon).

The Federal Revolt was dealt with by August 1793.

The war was going badly – this was blamed on the generals Custine was guillotined on suspicion of talking to the enemy forces. The scale of the problem made Carnot call a levee en masse – a mass conscription to harness all resources of the state to war. This mass conscription made the French army grow to over 1 million soldiers.

The Terror September 1793 – December 1793

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The problems of war, counterrevolution and federal revolt occupied the government but the economic problems of the poor remained. The Jacobins were unwilling to poor than the maximum, which they had already introduced. Herbert called for price controls ad prosecution of hoarders. On 5 September 1793 the sans-culottes invaded the convention – This forced the convention to pass the Law of the General Maximum.

The revolutionary army was used to root out hoarders but it was also used to crush federal revolt, royalist unrest and to enforce ‘dechristianisation’. Anyone who hoarded grain could be arrested under the Law of Suspects- however the terms of this law were so vague that anyone not expressing enthusiastic support for the revolution could be arrested.

There was pressure from the public in Paris to have Marie-Antoinette arrested along with Grondin deputies. They were tried by the revolutionary tribunal and executed. This bloodletting was party due to the suspension of the democratic constitution.

Outside of Paris local watch committees, representatives-on-mission and revolutionary armies interpreted the law according to their own prejudices. Lyon was torched after rebels there were defeated. In the Vendee resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of nuns. Thousands of priests and nuns were killed in noyades – underwater marriages were priests and nuns were tied together.


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Since the division, which resulted from the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the church was associated with counter-revolution. The church became associated with the Ancien Régime.

In 1793 the National Convention introduced a new Republican Calendar. This dated from the creation of the republic (22 September 1792) rather than from birth of Christ.

Fouche, a representative-on-mission made priests marry or adopt orphans. All religious references in churches were removed and replaced with the slogan ‘death is an eternal sleep’.

The Paris Commune destroyed religious statues and any priest denounced by six citizens could be deported.

Dechristianisation, although popular with the sans-culottes alienated rural people.

The Cult of Supreme Being – a secular god and the Festival of Reason were created

Robespierre and the Great Terror

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The Law of 14 Frimaire gave the two committees greater powers. The CPS was given responsibility to foreign policy and local government – The CPS was now effectively running the country. The revolutionary armies were abolished apart from Paris’ one. Representatives-on-mission and revolutionary tribunals were established.

At this time the federal revolt and revolt it the Vendee had been crushed. France was also going well in war against Austria. The Spanish and the British were pushed out of France and forced loans on the rich had recovered the economy causing the Assignat to double in price.

In this period of recovery Danton argued for an end to the terror and a moderation of revolutionary government. Such people were known as ‘Indulgents’, they were oppose they the san-culottes and its leader Herbert.

In March 1794 the CPS arrested Herberists and had them arrested. Robespierre on reading the works of Rousseau had developed the idea of a ‘Republic of virtue’ and this required the purging of all corrupt elements.

Danton was denounced and put on trial. He was executed on 5 April 1794.

This marked a more intense period of the terror. The Law of 22 Prairial was passed as the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris was proving too slow. The law allowed trials to decide on liberty or death – all the court had to decide was whether a person was an enemy of the people. This is sometimes referred to as the “Great Terror” – over 4,000 people were guillotined which included a high proportion of rich nobles. Almost everyone ‘tried’ was sentenced to death

Man began to see the CPS as a threat to the Republic. Robespierre lost support of the sans-culottes after the purging of the Herbertists.

Robespierre's attempts to impose the Cult of Supreme Being were unpopular with both Catholics and atheists. He alienated the CGS after setting up a police bureau under the CPS.

Because the Terror intensified at the time when the rationale for it was decreasing (war, counterrevolution) Robespierre became increasingly unpopular.

Robespierre soon began to accuse the CPS and CGS of plotting against the revolution – This made the Convention act. Robespierre was arrested and then executed.

A return to moderation The Coup of Thermidor and the Post-Thermidor reaction

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In the months after the Coup of Thermidor

  • The powers of the CPS and CGS were reduced
  • The revolutionary tribunal was disbanded
  • Law of 22 Primare revoked
  • Commune abolished
  • Jacobin club closed

A new constitution – The Constitution of the Year III was written to avoid executive dominance.

In December price controls were abolished and this caused rapid inflation. These prices were higher than usual because of a bad winter in 1794 and because more Assignats had been printed to pay for the war effort causing inflation.

This cased the sans-culotte to rise up demanding bread. After an armed standoff at the convention the crowds dispersed. The government then surrounded sans-colutte areas forcing them to give up their weapons. Six sans-culotte leaders were executed.

Revenge against the Jacobins known as the White Terror (White was the colour of the Bourbon royal house) was carried out by royalists and those that had suffered persecution during the Terror. In Brittany a royalist movement known as the Chouannerie took place. Roving groups attacked grain conveys and murdered officials. The British landed 3000 émigrés although this attack was quickly crushed.

Middle class youths known as la juenesse doree (gilded youth) beat up Jacobins and sans-culottes.

There was revolt in Vendamiaire but this was crushed by Napoleon Bonaparte.

This Themidoran Reaction returned the revolution to its course away from the previous extremism.